The Waterways Under the Normans

The Norman era brings to mind an otherworld of chivalrous knights and mighty stone castles that sprang up all along the rivers and lakes of Ireland.

Last updated: 20 Feb 2024

In the late 12th century, the waterways of Ireland became a battleground once again as a new force arrived on Irish shores in pursuit of land and glory, namely the Normans. They came from Normandy. Before settling in Normandy, they were Vikings so perhaps think of the Normans as Vikings with a dash of French panache.

At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Normans defeated the Saxon king and basically conquered England. That ‘single battle’ thing happens every now and then. In the 18th century, it happened twice - the British won control of Canada after the battle of Quebec, and secured India after the battle of Plassy.

About ninety years after Hastings, the grandsons and great-grandsons of those first Norman invaders into England turned their eyes west to Ireland. Today, over 850 years after their arrival, we can still see the stages on which those warriors played out their lives – the castles where they slept and ate, the harbours where they moored their boats, the churches where they worshipped, the graveyards where they lie buried. The Norman era brings to mind an otherworld of chivalrous knights and mighty stone castles that sprang up all along the rivers and lakes of Ireland. They were powerful and determined people who would rule much of the known world from Jerusalem to Sicily to the banks of the River Shannon.

In the 1160s, several Irish kings united to drive Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, off the island. Dermot went a-wandering in France, England and Wales and ultimately met with a French-speaking Norman warrior by the name of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke who was living in the Welsh Marches. De Clare is known to posterity as Strongbow. Dermot made him an offer he could not refuse – the hand in marriage of his daughter Aoife if Strongbow helped him regain his kingdom, and a promise to leave that kingdom to any children Strongbow and Aoife might have.

Strongbow duly rustled up a mercenary force to invade Ireland. The advance guard set off in 1169 and conquered the Viking enclave of Wexford on the Slaney within a few days. In 1170, Strongbow captured Waterford at the mouth of the Barrow, beheaded its Viking king and married Aoife in Reginald’s Tower: so delightful to have a headless Viking at your marital ceremony.i

The early Normans come across as Mafia-like mobsters, albeit full of chivalry. Some are from Wales, some from England, some kind of French and others are from what we now know as Belgium and the Netherlands. And yet they’re all kind of inter-related and there’s more than a hint of the Corleone family about them all.

Having gained a foothold in Ireland and nabbed Waterford and Wexford, their mission was to secure control of as many other lucrative port cities as possible. By the early 1170s, they had taken both Cork and Dublin meaning they now effectively controlled those ports and their rivers– the Liffey, the Lee, the Slaney, the Barrow and the Suir. In fact, they were all the way up the east coast into Drogheda and Carrickfergus. Over the next hundred or so years, the Normans and their descendants would develop those places, many of which started as Viking winter-camps, into proper medieval urban communities with walls, castles, markets, charters and all the makings of a modern town.

Like the Vikings and monks in earlier generations, the Normans used the rivers as their principal transport routes. That not only helped them to conquer the interior of the island but also enabled them to develop their trade links by getting agricultural produce out from the fertile interior into the port cities from where it could be shipped to the markets of Europe.

The most visible legacy of this Camrbo-Norman or Anglo-Norman era are their castles. Many of these stone fortresses were built along Irish rivers, as were numerous Norman churches. This was, after all, the age of the Christian soldier, the crusader, who fought with a prayer book in one hand and a razor-sharp sword in the other.

The River Barrow

The Vikings had used the River Barrow a little, fighting some battles at St Mullins and launching a few raids from its banks. The Normans would make the Barrow one of the main arteries of their new Irish colony, the Lordship of Leinster, a sort of follow on from the Kingdom of Leinster.

Strongbow and Aoife had two children, a boy and a girl. As the boy didn’t make it to adulthood, the lordship of Leinster was vested in their daughter, Isabel de Clare. In due course, King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart, commanded one of his knights, William Marshal, to marry Isabel de Clare. It turned out to be something of a love match. The Marshals, the power-couple of their age, went on a building frenzy constructing ports and lighthouses, churches and castles all over the sunny south-east.

One of their biggest castles was on a piece of rising ground on the River Barrow called Catherlough, aka Carlow. The original castle was a wooden fort built in about 1181. The stone castle, of which two towers and a massive connecting wall survive, was built over 800 years ago for William Marshal. It was a massive statement of intent from the Marshals. We are here to stay. This stone fortress is going to control everything in this area. We have mastery of the River Barrow, and its Burrin tributary, as well as all the roads in and out of the town. Our archers have arrows ready to fire at all times, but don’t worry, because we’re also going to develop a wonderful market here in Carlow and if you play by the rules and pay your taxes, all will be well.

Carlow Castle. Courtesy Fáilte Ireland

That’s the strategy. Establish fortifications along the waterways and control the rivers. Along the Barrow, many other mighty stone castles were built. You can still see the remnants of the motte and bailey at St Mullin’s. North of Carlow, there were stone castles along the river at Athy, Woodstock, White’s Castle, Rheban, at Kildangan by Monasterevin, and an incredible FitzGerald one at Lea, near Portarlington. A string of formidable outposts along perhaps 60km of the river, the border of the Pale.

Plenty more tower houses and castles were built as back up over the course of the medieval period, including another line of defence at Mountgarrett near New Ross (a tower house built by Bishop of Ferns in 1408), Tinnahinch (built by Butlers in 1615), the Black Castle in Leighlinbridge (1540s), Ballymoon (3km east of Bagenalstown, on a tributary of the Barrow, 13th or early 14th century), Ballyloughan (near Bagenalstown or Corrie’s Cross), Shrule (the Hartpole tower house near Kilkea) and Kilkea.

While the Anglo-Norman / Cambro-Norman invasion of Ireland was a military takeover, there was an economical string to the project. In the 12th, 13th, 14th century, the most popular way to make money was by farming. These new settlers seem to have been much better at farming than most people who were living in Ireland beforehand.

They certainly excelled when it came to sheep. Wool was key. Sheep’s wool was the hottest commodity in medieval Europe and the Normans were all over it. Among their core allies was an order of monks known as the Cistercians, or White Monks. These monks were quite unlike the hermits and devout missionaries of yesteryear, although some were undoubtedly like that. The Cistercians were essentially farmer monks who lived in incredibly organised abbeys, with dormitories, oratories cloistered halls and kitchens and so on, all arranged around a neat square or quadrangle - not like those Celtic monasteries.

Cistercian monks had proper work schedules, agendas and job titles. They were also stuffed with knowledge - how to improve land, how to make the earth fertile and productive, how to reclaim bad land and make it good. They knew how to breed better sheep and cows, and how to plant crops and vegetables, and how to build fish farms and weirs and mills. They were plugged into an international European network, headquartered in France, with excellent connections right into the heart of the European marketplace.

The Cistercians were the first continental order to come to Ireland. They arrived in 1141 and established their motherhouse at Mellifont Abbey. By 1161, they had eleven abbeys, including an absolute beauty at Boyle, County Roscommon.

Boyle Abbey. Courtesy Helen Cole

(The Cistercian abbey at Boyle was founded on land donated by the MacDermott family who lived at Macdermott Castle, a postcard perfect castle on a verdant green island in the south-west corner of Lough Key. The annals recorded a "very magnificent, kingly residence" on this spot in 1184. What you see now is a 19th century rebuild of it by the architect John Nash who was commissioned to redevelop it as a summer house or folly. ii)

By 1189, there were 23 Cistercian abbeys in Ireland including one on the River Barrow at Rosglas (St Mary’s Abbey), Monasterevin, County Kildare.iii By 1204, there were 31 Cistercian abbeys, the newest being Duiske Abbey on the River Barrow by Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny. For those building an abbey in the medieval age, the site required four or five key factors. A strong water supply to power cloth and flour mills. Pure and soft water for washing yarn. Fertile land for raising sheep; and access to sea trading along the river.

Relative isolation was also considered a positive. Duiske Abbey ticked all those boxes, not least because it was set in a landscape of rich, freely drained soils, well suited to cultivation. The abbey was founded by William Marshal who had already built a Cistercian monastery at Tintern Abbey in Wexford. Duiske Abbey is arguably the finest of Ireland’s abbeys; a mill has now stood on this site since the Cistercian monks arrived almost 820 years ago.

The Cistercians were like a medieval corporation, a corporate superpower, exporting their wool to places like Bruges in present-day Belgium where it was turned into beautiful cloth which was in turn sold for a high price at medieval fairs across Europe. Ultimately the Cistercians would have 38 abbeys across Ireland, with almost half a million acres spread through a huge number of granges, or out-farms. Monasterevin, for instance, had nine granges. The townlands of Jerusalem, Maganey and Graiguecullen near Carlow were probably all out farms for the Cistercians or their military cohorts, the Knights Templar.

As well as wool, tanned leather and cattle hides were in high demand, as was tallow wax from candles. By 1290, a couple of generations after the Normans arrive, approximately 51,000 cattle hides were exported out of Ireland. During the Middle Ages, wool and tanned hides remained the principal exports through Waterford and New Ross: the two ports exported more wool than all other Irish ports combined.

The River Shannon

By 1184, there were Norman knights, archers and horsemen knocking around Lough Derg on the River Shannon. Within a decade they had started to build castles, some from wood but others are made of stone, a material of permanence. The Normans were planning to stick around, and to take control of the River Shannon.

Following his visit to Ireland in 1185, the Norman writer Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, declared that the Shannon “deservedly claims first rank, both for its full and majestic stream, which flows through vast tracts of country and for the abundance of fish within its waters.”

The Normans duly began to nab the Shannon region, chunk by chunk. In 1195, Thomond - the kingdom of Limerick - fell to the Normans. Among the principal knights in this conquest was William de Burgh, an ancestor of Chris, who was rewarded with a grant of the south bank of the Shannon all the way from Limerick up to Lough Derg and north again, with the O’Brien’s on the other side. To protect those lands, he required some castles and so de Burgh – or Burke as his descendants became – built two of the first castles in County Galway. One was at Meelick, near the Victoria Lock on the Shannon, close to the point where the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connacht meet (Its earthworks are still visible today.) The other was perhaps 10km downriver from Meelick at Portumna where de Burgh built a motte and bailey close to the site of the present castle, which the de Burghs constructed in the 17th century. Built-in about 1203, these two castles represented the first thrust of the Normans into the kingdom of Connacht.

By 1216, the Normans had castles at Killaloe and Limerick City. The latter was an especially formidable Shannonside fortress and named for King John, as in the bad guy in the Robin Hood films, a man who gave the whole King John concept such a bad rap that, 800 years on, they still haven’t had a King John II. King John’s Castle, which you can visit today, was built on King’s Island, bang smack on the spot where the Vikings had their camp a few generations earlier. It was built in 1210 by John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich, who was King John’s main man in Ireland and one of his all-time favourite advisors. The bishop was a military man, a sword-swinging prelate with a mission. He also built the castle at Athlone.

King John's Castle. Limerick. Courtesy Cathy Wheatley.

However, there is a great complexity about castles in Ireland because thousands of them were built over the course of the medieval period. iv We call them castles, but many were houses, fortified houses. If you had any influence or money in the medieval period, you needed to live in a house that you could defend. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Irishman, a Welshman, a Norman or a Cockney merchant on the make from London, you’re going to make a strong stone house, ideally with narrow windows you can shoot arrows out and a castellated roof you can hide your archers behind.

Take Lough Derg, for instance. If you count up all the Norman keeps, fortified mansions and tower houses around the lough and label them all “castles”, that equates to almost forty castles on Lough Derg alone. v Not all of these were built by Norman knights, but some were because in 1237 the Annals of Loch Cé record that ‘the barons of Erinn came into Connacht, and commenced to build castles in it.’ In other words, the Normans – the descendants of Strongbow’s warriors – had now crossed the Shannon. They were led by Richard de Burgh, son of William. It had taken them a lot of fighting to get there, at least ten years of fighting, but now they had a grip, and they began building castles at all the strategic fords and crossing points.

1237 was the high watermark for those Normans on the Shannon because they never really got a decent hold on the waterway. Part of that was because the Irish chieftains, the Gaelic lords, kicked back. A whopper of a battle was fought in 1256 amid the drumlins of Magh Slécht in County Cavan, just west of the Shannon–Erne Waterway. The annals say the Burke’s and their allies assembled an army of 20,000, which was surely an exaggeration but however many it was, it wasn’t enough, because they got beat.

Things reach a crescendo fourteen years later when another massive battle was fought on a ford of the Shannon near Leitrim village in 1270. Known variously as the Battle of Ath an Chip, or the Battle of Connacht, it was another huge victory for the Irish, commanded by Hugh McFelim O'Connor, King of Connacht. In its wake, the Irish burned down every enemy castle they could find, including one that was in progress at Roscommon. That checked the AngloNorman / English advance in the region for a while. I generalise, enormously, but the point is that the Gaelic Irish lords had by no means rolled

Battlebridge near Leitrim Village

In terms of castles, just because the Normans had been kicked out, that did not mean people stopped building castles. In fact, many Gaelic Irish lords thought castles were a good idea and began adapting tower houses for their own use. vii Numerous tower houses on Lough Derg were built by the Kennedy family, or O'Kennedy, who were based in Ormond on the Tipperary side of the lough. They had a long-standing on-again off-again pact with the Butlers, one of the main Norman families, headed up by the Earls of Ormonde. The Kennedy castles were mainly in and around Nenagh, including those at Dromineer and Garrykennedy. They were ancestors of the celebrated equestrian dynasty of Kennedy from County Kildare, including Edward ‘Cub’ Kennedy, the breeder of The Tetrarch.

Running north up the Shannon to Lough Ree, there were less Norman castles simply because the Normans weren’t wildly successful at conquering those parts. viii They did, however, get Athlone where, in 1210, Bishop Gray (having just completed King John’s Castle in Limerick) built a stone fortress on a man-made hill, the walls of which still stand today. ix It was built so the English could control this vital crossing point of the Shannon, and also to make Athone a secure bridgehead should the English King’s army ever wish to advance into Connacht.

Bishop Gray’s hugely ambitious plot was to conquer both Connacht and the north-west of Ireland or, at least, Fermanagh and Monaghan. Maybe conquer is too strong a word but he was bringing the fight to the Irish. He had already established major castles at Limerick and Athlone. He then fortified Clonmacnoise on the Shannon. At this time, he also built three motte and bailey castles within present-day Ulster – one at Clones and two along the Erne at Belleek and Cáel Uisce. x These were the first castles in that part of Ireland; the Maguires would not build Enniskillen Castle for another 200 years or more.

The bishop seems to have wanted to use those forts to launch attacks on the Ulster clans but it never panned out. The Irish overran each one and the luckless Normans garrisoned there were either killed or sent packing. If you happen to be on the Ulster Canal, you can still see the remains of Bishop Gray’s motte and bailey fortresses in Clones, right above the town. It was actually built on the site of an older monument.

As to the fort at Cáel Uisce, the jury’s out as to its precise location but ‘cáel’ means narrow or slender so it was at a narrow part of Lough Erne, with the two favourite contenders being at Castle Caldwell and right at the spot where the river Erne leaves Lower Lough Erne. In 1258, when the Gaelic Irish lords were on the rise in the west, Cáel Uisce was the venue for ‘a general meeting of the provincial kings of Ireland.’ The plan was to elect one supreme king of Ireland at the meeting but the O’Briens and the O’Neills were both in attendance and neither would accept the other family as supreme so the event broke up without a resolution. xi

Another place of note from the Norman era was Rindoon, a walled Norman town built on a fortified peninsula St John's Point on the western shore, the Roscommon side, of Lough Ree … the silent, romantic waters of Lough Ree. xii Mind you, the waters haven’t always been silent and romantic. In 1201, a mega-battle was fought here between Normans and Connachtmen. Rindoon was an incredible Anglo-Norman sort of citadel. Its earliest part was a priory-hospital just outside the walls, which is much older than the castle. It was dedicated to St John the Baptist and may well have been started by the O’Connor kings who were bringing pilgrims across the lough at that time and down to Clonmacnoise and Cong and Tuam. The ancient wood beside it is called St John’s Wood in a further nod to the cult of St John the Baptist. Rindoon had everything – a castle, a very safe harbour (the most sheltered place on the lake in poor weather, as I know from personal experience), a 500-metre town wall, a street full of timber framed houses, a church, a market, a windmill, a fishpond, a rabbit warren and a deer-park. Rindoon was supposed to become a new town, a city even, and its castle was a royal castle. xiii Henry III, King of England, was also the Lord of Rindoon - not that he ever visited. He somehow swung a deal with the O’Connor kings in 1227 by which he was allowed to build the place. It had a town council and a constable. Its first constable Philip de Angelo was reputedly a grandson of one of the men who came to Ireland with 'Strongbow'. De Angelo had a chequered past, having been declared an outlaw at one stage, but he was evidently back on side by the time the walls were built. De Angelo was not long at Rindoon when the O’Connors decided to attack. It is hard to know how badly they trashed it because the Normans began rebuilding it until 1233 when King Henry III, Lord of Rindoon, pulled the plug and ordered the masons and labourers to down tools. It seems the government in Dublin had decided the royal castle and bridge at Athlone were a much more sensible investment and so called a halt to the Rindoon project. The place continued on for another eighty years or so, with patchwork repairs, but it was attacked again and again and, in the early 1300s, it was abandoned in its entirety.

For those traveling on the Royal Canal Greenway, there is the magnificent castle at Maynooth xiv as well as nearby Moygaddy Castle, a sweet tower where barn owls like to chill. Also of note is the amazing Trim Castle, which Mel Gibson used to great effect in ‘Braveheart’ thirty years ago. xv


i Intermarriage was not unusual. So, for instance, as well as Aoife marrying Strongbow, we have Princess Rose Ní Conchobair - a daughter of High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair – who married Hugh de Lacy, while William de Burgh, the Lord of Connacht, married an unnamed daughter of Domnall Mór Ó Briain, King of Thomond.

ii In 1235 the MacDermot stronghold, The Rock, on Lough Key on the Boyle Water, was attacked and burnt.

iii O’Sullivan, Goodly Barrow, page 152 onwards for Cistercian monks.

iv The FitzGeralds first settled at Glin in the 1200’s at nearby Shanid Castle following the Norman invasion of Ireland. Their war cry was Shanid Abu! (Shanid forever in Gaelic). In the early 14th century the Earl of Desmond, head of the Geraldines, made hereditary Knights of 3 illegitimate sons he had sired with the wives of various Irish chieftains, creating them the White Knight, the Green Knight of Kerry and the Black Knight of Glin. For seven centuries they defended their lands against the troops of Elizabeth I, and during the Cromwellian plantation and Penal laws. Carrigogunnell Castle near Clarina on the Shannon was granted to Donnchad Cairbreach, King of Thomond in 1209.

v Larkin, Patrick. “The Castles of Lough Derg: An Illustrated Survey.” Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, vol. 64, 2012, pp. 21–55.

vi There are other factors at play in the decline of the Anglo-Norman control of the region. In the next century, Edward the Bruce bring a Scottish army to Ireland that causes mayhem to the Anglo-Norman forces. There’s also the Black Death in the 1340s which kills God knows how many people. It’s all over Ireland. On the Barrow. On the Boyle River, near Lough Key, they found a mass grave a while back at Knockvicar that may well be connected to that horrific plague.

vii The old RIC barracks in Ballymahon is said to be built on a fortress of the O'Farrell Clan; the earthworks can still be seen off the Fairgreen/Thomand Lodge Road.

viii Rathcline Castle, situated 2km from the town of Lanesborough, overlooking Lough Ree, was built around the 9th Century by the O'Quinn clan.

ix In the 13th century, the land of Tir Maine, on the east of the Shannon, was extensively granted to AngloNorman settlers because they want to ensure they have control of Athlone on the River Shannon, a major national bridging point.

x Gallachair, P. Ó. “The Erne Forts of Cael Uisce and Belleek.” Clogher Record, vol. 6, no. 1, 1966, pp. 104–18. Fr. Gallagher who taught at St. Tiernach's Secondary School, Clones, was instrumental in the setting up of the Credit Union movement in Ireland.

xi See The History and Topography of the County of Clare by James Frost, 1258 here. ‘A general meeting of the provincial kings of Ireland was therefore convoked, at a place called Cael-uisce, on Lough Erne, near the present Castle Calwell, and Conor O’Brien, being unable to attend in person, sent his eldest son Teige, called in after times, from that incident, Teige Cael-uisce, to represent him in the assembly (A.D. 1258). As the best means of resisting the English, it was proposed, that one supreme king of Ireland should be acknowledged, with full powers vested in him, to call out and command the forces of the whole country. This was agreed to, but when it came to the selection of the supreme ruler, a contest arose between O’Neill and O’Brien as to which of the two should be the man to be chosen. O’Neill’s right was regarded as paramount and unquestionable, but O’Brien would not yield, and as a consequence, the conference broke up without arriving at any definite settlement of the question. Since Ireland was first inhabited up to the present day, no act more fatal to her true interests ever happened than this. The opportunity was lost, never to return, of annihilating the power of England, then in its weakness. The example of Brian Boroimhe, who by means of his sole sovereignty over the whole island was able to extirpate the Danes, was forgotten by his descendant Teige Cael-uisce, and by his act of vain folly, the island has since remained a scene of anarchy, fomented by the machinations of the unscrupulous stranger. Teige died in the following year, but it had been better for his country that he was never born.’ Tadhg Cael Uisce Ó Briain (born c. 1230, died 1259) was the eldest son of Conchobhar na Siudane Ó Briain and Tánaiste of Thomond. He received the suffix "Cael Uisce" from the having attended the conference of Cael Uisce on behalf of his father and refusing to acknowledge Brian Ua Néill as High King. He died in 1259, pre-deceasing his father

xii It was built close to St John’s Point, at the narrowest part of the lough.

xiii This was a royal castle, built alongside the royal castles at Trim, Roscommon and Athlone, to dominate Connacht.

xiv In fact, when they were building the canal, the Duke of Leinster, a board member, insisted that the new waterway take in his local town of Maynooth, which meant a very expensive and time-sucking construction of a 'deep sinking' between Blanchardstown and Clonsilla, as well as the building of the Ryewater Aqueduct, at Leixlip

xv Knockdrin, outside Mullingar, seemingly occupies the site of a small Norman castle (often known locally as 'King John's Castle') which was destroyed by fire.


Researched and written by Irish historian Turtle Bunbury, the history of Irish Waterways and their environs is the result of extensive original scholarship through the National Archives and contemporary newspapers, as well as the expertise of local historians and academic historians.


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